Steve Forbes’ Freedom Manifesto–Possibly to be Continued


I picked up Steve Forbes’ Freedom Manifesto in the library today, figuring I would dusagree with at least some of it. In that respect I wasn’t disappointed. What I’m getting REALLY tired of is the stereotypes and false dualisms that pass for political discussion these days. I’ve read little beyond the introduction so far, but there are already a whole list of things obviously slanted.

Here are a whole series of Is It Fair Questions: “Is it fair… that taxpaying citizens, struggling to stay afloat, are forced to pay higher prices for gasoline, electricity and food because of politically driven Big Government policies–from  bans on energy production and development to monetary policies that dilute the value of the dollar? Or that they have to pay for lavish salaries and pensions for government workers who retire in their fifties?”

Let’s answer this one by asking if it’s fair that we’re runing out of petroleum, coal and nautural gas? That isn’t a question of fairness, but a fact. You may or may not believe in global warming; you don’t have to in order to be aware of pollution and its detrimental effect on human beings. Which is why we need to develop clean energy instead of sticking with old-fashioned energy sources, important as they may be in the short run. And is paying the pensions of government workers worse than paying CEOs of big companies hugely inflated salaries? Not in my opinion. If Mr. Forbes would like his salary lowered, that would be perfectly fine with me.

“Is it fair that politically appointed bureaucrats in an unaccountable federal agency can attempt to stop airline manufacturer Boenig from opening a new plant that would create desperately needed jobs in South Carolina?” Is it fair for Boeing to take jobs away from people in Washington state? That makes capitalism look like a zero-sum game. Boeing may not like unions (the ostensible reason for the move to South Carolina), but why should anyone like unaccountable overpaid CEOs?

The next question is whether it’s fair that the only solution to the budget problems for liberals is taxing the wealthy? Thanks to conservatives, that’s not the only suggestion out there. Conservatives like to focus on cutting the safety net (which wouldn’t adversely affect most of them) instead of the bloated military. Is it fair for conservatives to insist on cutting only the spending THEY don’t like? If they were serious, wouldn’t they want to cut spending across the board?

Then there’s the question of taxes, which almost 50% of the country doesn’t pay. Answer this one with, is it fair that capitalists export jobs, don’t create well-paid ones, then blame the people who DON’T create jobs for being unable to pay taxes?

Then the debt, which is all Big Government’s fault. We can get a bit more specific than that. There was a president who started two wars without raising taxes to pay for them, and borrowing the money from China. That the current president has continued those policies (he HAS tried to finally stop the wars) isn’t to his credit.

Then Forbes speaks of how Steve Jobs captured the American imagination. Certainly Jobs had an inspiring story, and accomplished a great deal. One thing Forbes doesn’t mention, though, are the Apple plants in China, where workers were forced to live in dormitories, work overly long hours doing repetitive motions that caused many to lose the use of their hands, and where suicide rates are or were high. Is that the sort of envirionment anyone wants to work in? As Forbes admists, Jobs wasn’t perfect; it’s interesting that the factories in China closely resemble Karl Marx’s predictions of how capitalists would behave. Granted, he generated jobs, and without government stimulus money. But what kind of jobs? And where?

Forbes mentions the “stagflation” of the 1970s and attributes it to Big Governemt. Really? Rising oil prices had nothing to do with it?

Then he says Ronald Reagan “unleashed” the economy. For whom? Ordinary Americans have seen their wages go down ever since Reagan, so they find it harder and harder to get by. Is THAT fair?

So okay, Big Government can be, and often is bad. Does that make business automatically good? I recall a conversation I had with someone decades ago, when he was telling me about a big business that wasn’t too good on customer service (which Forbes says is the advantage of the private sector over the government). The point I took away from that was that the company he mentioned had the resources to give good service, but didn’t. That, I think was because it was a BIG business. Big is big and big is powerful, and those who accumulate power don’t have to be accountable or pay any attention to what others want, whether it’s big business or big government. It sure would be nice if either government or business was automatically good, but it’s not that simple, and anyone who tries to tell you different either doesn’t have your best interests at heart or is simple-minded.

Let’s grant the proposition that too much government is bad. So is too little. World War I destroyed the Czarist government, which led to the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War. The post-war German government wasn’t strong enough to keep the Nazis out of power, and the Chinese government of the same period eventually succumbed to the Communists. Too little government led to too much.

The same can be said of regulation, which, as Forbes says, can also be overdone. Let’s consider the Glass-Steagall bill which was passed during the Great Depression, and was supposed to stop irresponsible speculation. That bill was repealed in the late 90’s (under Bill Clinton–Republicans aren’t the only villains here), and it took no more than ten years for irresponsible speculation to almost destroy the economy. No doubt Forbes will blame the speculation on the government too, which he blames for the stimulus packages not working. Let’s notice that only the people who sold the mortgages in the housing bubble got bailed out (and not all of them), while those who bought them DIDN’T get bailed out. Was THAT fair?

The fact is that people generally prefer not to regulate THEMSELVES. Government and private sector alike take advantage. Few are wholly right or wholly wrong. All of us are imperfect. Were this not the case, we could live as anarchists without any government whatever, and everyone would be happy. As the 20th century shows, when there’s not enough governmental control, there’s violence, and warlords and private armies. “Drowning the government in the bathtub”, as Grover Norquist (I think it was) put it, can bring those days back again. I’m sure Norquist will be glad to provide them for you if you really want them.

So in any nation there has to be a balancing act between too little government and too much. Freedom is an ideal in this country, but freedom leads to bad things as well as good. We want law to prevent murder and theft, among other things, but it never entirely does. Capitalism ideally provides creativity in new and useful products, but that’s not the only place it’s creative. It also very creatively sells people things they don’t need, and which are bad for them, and finds ways to steal from lots of people. Not so different from corrupt government.

It’s not that what Forbes says is entirely wrong, but it IS slanted. Governments aren’t the only people who use propaganda. What do you think commercials are? Ideally they would only be making people aware of things that might be useful to them. In practice, it’s telling people to buy OUR product because THEIR product is illegal, immoral and fattening. Again, not so different from government. And I haven’t gotten much further than the introduction in this book. Maybe I’ll write more about it later.

Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War


With the current political divisions in this country, it’s hard not to be reminded of the
Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln, who presided over it. Especially with the new movie about him that I haven’t seen, but would like to.

Opinions about Lincoln have always been divided. Many consider him our greatest pre-sident, or one of them.

A recent article pointed out that during the Mexican War of 1848 he supported (as a Congressman) the right of Texas to seceded from Mexico. But the Civil War happened because he refused to allow the South to secede from the Union, a decision ultimately causing the deaths of some 620,000 soldiers, and a good many civilians. The bitter-ness of that war is still with us.

Why did Lincoln make that decision? The article was in a financial magazine, and was about a book written about Lincoln, Lincoln Uncensored, by Joseph Fallon, which I haven’t read, though I’d like to, so naturally they looked for the money in the situation. There was no income tax then, so national government was financed by tariffs on trade of which, according to the article, some 75% came from the South. A pretty compelling argument.

It’s known that Lincoln wasn’t necessarily opposed to slavery, just its extension into new territories. He played with the idea of sending slaves back to Africa, believeing that blacks and whites couldn’t possibly get along. He was surprised to discover that black leaders weren’t enthusiastic about that idea.

Of course he eventually did sign the Emancipation Proclamation, mostly to strike a blow at the South. A lot of Southerners have resented that ever since.

He’s said to have been a consummate politician, which not everyone would think a compliment. Politics exacerbates divisions between people as much as it does anything else, but politics seems to be something we’re stuck with. Humans haven’t figured out a way for large numbers of people to live together without power being an issue. Some have thought anarchy would be the best way, but relatively few humans rise to the standard of responsibility and morality necessary.

It’s hard to know what might have happened had the South won the Civil War or forced a stalemate. Science fiction writers have played with the idea, suggesting that a victorious South might have been a fertile ground for Communism, and that the North and South would have been unable to stop competing and simply allow each other to go separate ways.

And would both or either have allied themselves with Britan and France in the World Wars, or would one or both have allied with Germany?

It seems likely that the Northern states would have continued developing on a technological track. Maybe a victorious South would have considered that necessary too, or maybe they would have been content to remain an agricultural region.

The enforced Union of the two regions has contributed to the power of this country, but a great deal of bitterness still remains, as we’ve seen ever since. Southern defeat brought us the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow. Northern victory gave it financial dominance, and, arguably, intellectual dominance too. The financial picture has changed somewhat in the past 50 years, but some of the poorest states remain in the South.

After the Presidential election a movement in several Deep South states started petitioning for the right to secede. One columnist suggested it might be a good idea to let them go, pointing out that most of the states involved are poor, and receive a lot of their income from other states, via Washington, DC. Isn’t it interesting that these are the most conservative states, claiming to stand for smaller government and individual responsibility?

The columnist’s take on the petitions was that if they were granted those states wouldn’t do very well on their own, and I think his view is hard to dispute. Customs that don’t allow all citizens the opportunity to maximize their potential are unlikely to be very successful in the wider world. Little industry and few entrepeneurs are also strikes against the region.

Abraham Lincoln believed that North and South could learn to live together, although the relationship had been uneasy from the beginning. Maybe, had he lived, he might have persuaded both sides to forgive, but there’s a limit to what one individual can do. Southerners despised Northerners for being money-mad (not without some reason), and worried that the North would take their property (slaves) away, which eventually happened.  The compromise the South had demanded before acceding to the Constitution of the United States was for each slave to count as 3/5 of a person, giving the South more representation and most of the Presidents before the Civil War. It was a long time after that before a Southern president was elected again.

Northerners, on the other hand, felt Southerners were trying to dictate to THEM, as they did to their slaves. There weren’t that many Abolitionists in the North, but Southerners didn’t want slavery even to be DISCUSSED in the Congress. That was a fight they were unable to win, though, especially as the USA began expanding, and issues about fugitive slaves and importation of slaves into new territories arose. The fact is, neither North nor South cared that much about the slaves, who probably ended up worse off than anyone else involved.

By the time Abraham Lincoln began running for president it probably wasn’t a surprise to anyone that war was soon to follow, though it took a few coincidences to make it happen when it did. I’m not even sure if many of the soldiers had a clear idea what they werer fighting for, except for their respective parts of the country. That rivalry may have been the most fundamental reason for the war, though by that time there were enough others.

I wonder too how many people would have predicted the North would win. There was a lot of trade in the South, both tobacco and cotton being in demand in Europe, which made a European alliance possible. But such an alliance never happened (possibly in part because Europeans had outlawed slavery), and though the South had most of the good generals, and the Southern soldiers were arguably better, the North had more factories and more soldiers to use as cannon-fodder, so the North won.

So I question whether Abraham Lincoln was a villain or a hero. Or maybe a better way to frame it is, would anyone else have been a better president at that time? Maybe allowing the South to secede would have been a better choice. It’s probably the choice I’d have made in that position (but I would never be in that position). But who would have been unmoved by the financial aspect that supposedly decided Lincoln? And if Lincoln didn’t stand up for liberty , who would have? Government is always based on power, both financial and military. Peaceable solutions aren’t impossible, as witness the dissoution of the Soviet Union, and the changing of the South African regime, but they’re also not very frequent. Though much of eastern Europe made a fairly peaceful transition, but Yugoslavia didn’t, nor did Chechnya.

Lincoln’s  only other choices were to let the South secede or to come up with a compromise that would be acceptable to both sides. The latter was unlikely, though, as all the compromises of the 1850s had only further enraged each side. It would have taken a political genius even greater than Lincoln to have found such a compromise, and there doesn’t seem to have been one around. We’ll never know what would have happened if the South had peaceably seceded–all we know is that it didn’t happen, and the Civil War and its aftermath didn’t work out too well. North and South, as well as conservative and liberal, black and white, still have a long way to go in the task of learning to live together.

But no matter our view of Lincoln, the Civil War or current politics, we still have the possibility of learning to do better. We live in a time of tension, and of expectation of disaster, but that may turn out to be the challenge that helps us start learning to do things a better way. Humans tend to do best (and sometimes worst) when their backs are against the wall.

So was Lincoln a hero or villain? Like anyone else, he seems to have been some of both.

T.H. White’s The Once and Future King


 first discovered T.H. white’s The Once and Future King in my early teens. The tetralogy is a retelling of the legend of King Arthur, with White’s own particular spin on it.
White often refers to Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which is a pretty late version of the story, and includes a lot about jousting, which by the time Mallory wrote had become a sophisticated sport with standings and statistics, comparable in that respect to baseball.
The protptype of King Arthur probably lived in the 5th or 6th century AD, and probably had little to do with the ideal of chivalry which comes in the later versions. I don’t think the figure who inspired the story has ever been certainly identified, and Mary Stewart, who wrote a version of the legend of her own, says that the earliest chronicler, Geoffrey of Monmouth  was not one to let facts get in the way of a good story.
So we don’t know exactly where the story came from, or on whom it was based, but it’s a pretty odd story, as White often comments. A civilization, or at least a strongly different development of a civilization, begins with King Arthur and ends with his death. Arthur is constantly struggling with big questions, trying to solve problems that prove to be too much for him. They’re problems that we can easily imagine will be with humankind for the foreseeable future.
White begins with The Sword in the Stone, an account of Arthur’s childhood, when he’s known as the Wart, since no one knows who he really is. Merlyn becomes his and his stepbrother’s tutor, and extends his teaching by transforming the Wart into various animals. An unusual sort of education. His childhood is idyllic, with all the strengths and weaknesses of that. It makes him into a good person, but it doesn’t help him understand evil people.
He does try, though. In one scene shortly after having become king, he’s exulting about how exciting a recent battle has been, which he was able to win with his sword, Excalibur. Merlyn asks him how the peasants who had to fight felt about it. Knights were so well armored they were difficult to hurt in battle, but the peasants who had to fight didn’t have very good weapons, and little protection. It was accepted as perfectly fine for large numbers of them to die in battle. This starts Arthur thinking about the use of force.

The existing power structure is based on the idea that Might is Right. On thinking about this, Arthur decides there’s something wrong with this idea, and decides to try to channel Might into righting wrongs. Thus is the idea of the Round Table born, with its ethic of competing to rescue maidens and anyone else being oppressed by the various barons. These, being almost invulnerable in their armor, could treat ordinary people any way they cared to. Not all were oppressive, but some behaved much like contemporary gangsters. These were the ones Arthur tried to either convert or replace.

Complicating the picture is conflict between the upper classes (in White’s version, Normans, though in the 5th century it would have been Romanized Britons, who were Celtic) and either Celts or Saxons. A coalition of Celts declare war on Arthur, expecting him to massacre a lot of their serfs, and at worst hold some of them for ransom. That was often the way war was conducted in the Middle Ages.

Instead, Arthur opts for total war, and aims at the nobility instead of the serfs. A shocking but successful strategy, which enables him to establish the Round Table and build a secure civilization. Sir Lancelot enters the picture at this time, and becomes the dominant figure of the Round Table. He also eventually enters into an adulterous relationship with Queen Guinevere. White portrays Arthur as a relatively simple and decent man. He loves both Guinevere and Lancelot, so prefers not to confront the problem of their adultery. Lancelot is portrayed as a man with an extremely ugly face (probably to combat the stereotype of the hero as thrillingly handsome as well as skillful or charismatic) and a very tender conscience. He wishes to do something miraculous, and considers virginity to be necessary for that. He rescues a virgin from boiling water, subsequently is tricked into sleeping with her, and decides he may as well give in to his love for Guinevere, which he had been resisting. From all this many problems arise.

The other main problem arises from Arthur sleeping with Morgause, a queen of the rather despised Celts, and, it turns out, his half-sister. From this alliance, Mordred is born, and turns out to be Arthur’s nemesis. Besides that, Mordred has 4 older brothers: Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris and Gareth, all knights of the Round Table, to their mother’s disgust. The legend of Arthur and the Holy Grail evolved. Gawaine was originally one of the dominant characters, to be succeeded by Lancelot, Galahad and Percivale (Parsifal in the German accounts of Wolfram von Eschenbach and Richard Wagner.

But the civilization begins to become decadent. Arthur and his friends think they’ve been neglecting spirituality, and the idea of the search for the Holy Grail is born.

All of this seems a condensed version of any civilization. It develops according to a central idea, which may be nothing more than the desire for land and loot, but which may develop in higher directions; necessarily so, if the civilization is to endure. White has Arthur and Guinevere sitting at home waiting for the knights to return. First to come back are those who failed through sexuality, killing, or insufficient theological acumen. Most of them have run into Galahad, Lancelot’s illegitimate son, who has become the best knight of the Round Table, and is regarded by most as priggish and immodest. Lancelot, when he returns, remarks that Galahad’s irritating behavior is beside the point. He’s on a higher plane than the other knights, so they’re unable to understand him. Lancelot himself has been beaten in jousts by Galahad, and realizes that he has too much pride to attain to the Grail, though in the end he is allowed to be in an outer part of the church where the knights selected to come to the Grail are celebrating Mass with the Grail central in the performance.

Arthur’s problem continues. The best knights seeking the Grail have died; what remains are the lesser knights. High spiritual achievement leads out of this world. If it doesn’t influence ordinary people, it’s of little use to society.

According to Joseph Campbell, this is what makes Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parsifal the best of the various versions of the legend of King Arthur and of the Grail quest. Galahad is a virgin, and dies after having attained to the Grail: he has nothing else to live for. Parsifal (whose name von Eschenbach translates as meaning “right through the middle”) is married, and therefore engaged with society. He has also married for love, rather than for dynastic or economic reasons. Campbell says this is the first writing he knows of that recommends love as the primary reason for marriage, though that has since become the ideal in the western world.

Arthur continues to struggle with the idea of Might, which cannot be done away with. How can it be disciplined, so that it’s not constantly destructive of society? His next idea is the rule of law. This causes him personal problems because of Lancelot and Guinevere. Mordred and Agravaine try to catch them in adultery, succeed, and Guinevere is sentenced to be executed. Lancelot rescues her, but accidentally kills Gareth and Gaheris, younger brothers of Gawaine and older half-brothers of Mordred. Lancelot takes Guinevere to his castle, Arthur must lay seige to it, despite his personal reluctance, and while he is away Mordred engineers a coup. Arthur leaves the seige to fight Mordred.

In the last scene of the book Arthur is sleepless late at night in his tent, working fitfully at various things and thinking about his life. The central problem is unresolved, he knows he’s going to die the next day, and that all he worked for will be lost. He summons a page, and tells him to leave that night and survive to tell Arthur’s story, so that the effort can be renewed by someone else, possibly more successfully.

This seems a microcosm of any civilization, which begins, grows, develops, becomes decadent and dies. Not all civilizations try to achieve such high ideals, but civilizations that last more than a few hundred years have come to be unusual. All human organizations can become corrupted, and most do. Perhaps a civilization can be built on better foundations than those of Arthur, but there are no guarantees of success or indefinite survival. We know that the ideals of chivalry came from the Muslim world, at that time a much higher civilization than the European, but just who formulated them we don’t know. Some have suggested that ideals come originally from outside the human world. If so, they are probably not expected to be more than partially successful in the short term. If humans as a whole manage to evolve, that’s something that might change.

Angle of Repose


I vaguely remembered having read Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner years ago, and that it had been good. I thought that might have been because it had a happy ending. Not exactly.

The story is about the narrator’s grandparents, with a counterplot about the narrator’s own life. His grandmother had been an Eastern intellectual, a writer and artist, and intially attracted to a magazine editor whom her best friend married. Her husband is intelligent enough, a mining engineer enamoured of the Western frontier, but not terribly articulate. They’re different kinds of people, but not so dcessful marriage. might not be able to have a successful marriage. That’s if things went well. But they didn’t.
They start out at one mine, her husband quits the job in disagreement with management, he takes several other jobs, but they don’t work out either. Finally he begins a project that sparks his imagination: a large-scale irrigation project in Idaho. But this one also doesn’t work out. Financing fails, so there are periods in which he and his team are able to work, and periods when they can’t. Meanwhile, his wife is supporting the family with writings and drawings.
They’re a 19th century couple, though they live well into the 20th century, and having to be supported by his wife doesn’t sit well with the husband, Oliver Ward. Susan, the wife, would prefer it not be that way either, but does what she has to do to support the family.
So part of teh question of the book is, what happens when you encounter a long streak of bad luck? This theme is of some interest to me, as my own family is undergoing something similar right now. But this fictional (though the book reads as if Stegner might be writing about actual relatives) couple has a streak of bad luck lasting for years. Eventually it ends in disaster.
One of Susan’s husband’s friends, who has worked with her husband for years, has fallen in love with her. She can’t help having feelings in return. The narrator emphasizes that all three were honorable and responsible people with high standards, which he contrasts with the hippie era (he claims to be writing in 1967, though the book was published several years later). One day Susan and her husband’s friend meet away from the others. She’s brought her youngest daughter along, but in distraction, fails to keep an eye on her. The child runs away, falls into the nearby river and drowns. They try to revive her, without success.
What would anyone do in that situation? After the funeral the wife almost immediately leaves for the East with her son, to put him into a private high school. She doesn’t see him again for 15 years. She considers asking her best friend and editor husband for a job, but decides not to pursue that. She heads west again, helping a friend teach a school. She’s separated from her husband for several years until he finds steady work at a mine in California, where she joins him.
The narrator is an aging man himself, with health problems. He has a disease which has deposited too much calcium into his bones, so that he can no longer turn his neck. He’s also had a leg amputated, though he doesn’t say why. This has left him able to read and write, but to do little else. He has to rely on others for care, because he’s unable to care for himself.
It also emerges that his wife had left him when he was recovering from the amputation. He’s not sure exactly why she did, but he feels bitter and vengeful towards her.
A young woman, something of a hippie, helps him during the summer when he’s living in his grandparents’ old house in an isolated area, and provides a different viewpoint. She thinks his grandparents, maybe his grandmother in particular, had sexual hangups. The narrator disagrees.
His grandparents lived in a different era, with different expectations. Living on the Western frontier in particular, they were much more familiar with physical hardship than we are today. Having babies born at home, perhaps without medical help, for instance. And no indoor plumbing, for another instance. For them, sex was a private matter, and not something to be advertised or overly free with. It was a matter of deep feeling. Sex is either holy or unholy, says the narrator. If the unholy is indulged in, it can poison the whole of life.
The three protagonists of the book see it that way. Her husband’s friend shows his feeling about it by committing suicide a few days after the little girl’s death. The wife shows it by rushing her son to the East coast, considering a job with her friend and the magazine editor, but rejecting that option. Was it that she didn’t want to have to explain what had happened, or that she felt unworthy, or something else? The narrator says that she was a survivor, eventually living 91 years, so she didn’t take the “easy” way out of suicide. What she did instead was rejoin her husband a few years after their separation, and live with him for the rest of their lives.
The narrator remembers loving both of them, but especially his grandfather, who always made him feel comfortable. But he never remembers his grandfather showing any affection to his grandmother. He didn’t mistreat her. He respected her, and she respected him.
But he was a man, the narrator says, who expected little from humans in general. He was easily taken advantage of, and didn’t let it bother him much. But some few people he trusted absolutely, and one of those people was his wife. When he felt he had been betrayed by her, he was unable to forget or forgive.
There’s no knowing if his wife and best friend ever had sex together, but they had at least been tempted. His wife had understood that,agreed with his assessment, and had made the decision to continue living with him, hoping to expiate what she’d done. She lived more than the second half of her life with him, but they were never able to get beyond the trauma that had shattered their marriage.
Near the end of the book, the author has a vivid dream about his own wife, and about the characters he’s been living with during the summer. He ends the book by saying that he has to discover if he has the courage to be a bigger man than his grandfather was.

The Greco-Persian Wars


Probably most people have heard of the Greco-Persian wars and the battle of Marathon, but don’t really know the details. Peter Green has written a book telling them all: how and why everything happened, and it’s pretty fascinating, like the ultimate David and Goliath story. But, like the story in the Bible, the contest wasn’t as unequal as it appeared.

The beginning is with the expansion of the Persian empire. Persia had conquered Babylonia, Egypt, Syria, the territories of the Assyrian empire which had disintegrated about a generation before, then had expanded through Asia Minor and across the Black Sea. In doing all this it had put pressure on Athens. Attica, where Athens is located, has never been good agricultural land, and Athenian population had risen so far that most food had to be imported; mainly wheat from either Egypt or what is now southern Russia, north of the Black Sea.

The Persians had also conquered the Greek cities of Asia Minor. Most of them had little objection to the Persians—until heavy taxes were imposed on them. They tried rebelling, Athens sent a squadron of ships to assist, and the city of Sardis was burned. The Athenians became alarmed and left, and the Great King, Darius, reconquered all the cities. Had the Athenians stayed, it might have been different. They might have helped prevent the Persians from taking the naval bases on several of the islands off the coast of Asia Minor, which might have made the rebellion successful. Instead, they had drawn the attention of Darius to mainland Greece.

Darius sent envoys to Athens and Sparta, demanding earth and water, symbolic of their submission to him. Athens imprisoned the envoys; Sparta threw them into a well, telling them that they were now in the right place to obtain what they asked for. After that, war was inevitable. From the Persian point of view, the Greeks had interfered with internal problems of the Persian empire, which couldn’t be tolerated. About 490 BC the Persians invaded northern Greece and made their way south.

It might make a nice story if the Greeks had all patriotically united to throw the invaders out, but that wasn’t what happened. Northern Greek cities in particular submitted, and even Athens was not united. Athens had become a democracy about 20 years before when Cleisthenes, in an internal power struggle, had extended the franchise so that others besides the landowners became allowed to vote. He’d also reorganized the administration in ways that lasted for hundreds of years, so that Athens was in relatively good shape, and mostly optimistic. But some conservatives were quite willing to let the Persians rule in exchange for power for themselves—the Persians generally allowed locals to rule beneath them. The lower classes weren’t much interested in that, though.

An Athenian who had previously held power, Hippias, was now an advisor to Darius, and on his advice the Persian army landed at Marathon. This was an area of fields where the Persian cavalry could operate, and it was only 24 miles from Athens. When the Athenians heard of the landing they decided this was the place to confront the Persians, and not allow them to proceed further, so they hurried an army to the area, and asked the Spartans (with the best military in mainland Greece) to join them. The Spartans declined, saying that for religious reasons they couldn’t leave until the full moon was past. So the Athenians were there by themselves.

At Marathon they were outnumbered, but they had advantages over the Persians nonetheless. The Iranians were the elite fighters in the army, but a large percentage of the troops were of subject nations, whose motivation was sometimes questionable, and who weren’t nearly as well-equipped as the Greeks. The Greeks had long spears, shields at least partly of metal, and short swords. The Persian auxiliaries had javelins and knives, and little in the way of armor. So for several days the two forces watched each other and made no move.

The move came when the Persians decided to send a large part of their navy to Athens. Subject Greeks apparently informed the Athenians, and they quickly held a council. The Persian ships couldn’t reach Athens for probably 9 to 10 hours. If the Athenians could quickly defeat the army, they could manage to get back to Athens in time to prevent the navy from taking the town. And that’s exactly what they did.

Knowing that the Iranians usually fought in the middle of the battle line, the Greeks put some of their best fighters there, but made the line thin, while putting most of their soldiers on each wing, where the Persians stationed their fighters from subject nations. The two wings were quickly able to overwhelm the wings of the Persians, and rather than loot the Persian camp (always a temptation in such circumstances), they turned around and reinforced the middle of the battle line, driving the Persians back into defeat. Then they all headed back to Athens with barely a pause, arriving there just about the same time the Persian ships did. The Persians sat in the harbor and thought about the situation, then turned around and sailed back to Asia. All of Greece, and especially Athens, was euphoric.

With one exception. Themistocles was a successful politician, but an outsider in Athens, his family coming from a lower class. The author draws an analogy between him and Winston Churchill, similarly an outsider, both of whom saw further into the future than most. Themistocles saw that Persia would not be satisfied to leave the Greeks unpunished and that Athens would have to employ a different strategy to defeat them a second time. Conservatives thought the army could do it all, as they had in this instance. Themistocles foresaw that both the Persian army and navy would be much larger the next time. He thought that the only way to win was to evacuate Attica, send the refugees somewhere safe, and use a much more numerous navy to destroy the Persian navy. This was not a popular idea.

But by 484 or so, it became clear that Persia was preparing to invade Greece. Themistocles and those who agreed with him managed to take over the Board of Generals, which allowed them at least the possibility of remaining in power for more than one year at a time, giving them the opportunity to plan ahead for the defense of Greece. This was made possible by the discovery of a new and immense vein of silver in the mines of Laurium, which had been worked for a long time. Without this economic bonanza, the defense could never have succeeded. Politically, the method of ostracism was used to get rid of anyone who opposed the building of many new triremes to be used for defense, and the fortification of Piraeus, the harbor of Athens. The author suggests that the discovery of silver in Laurium wasn’t entirely an accident, since Themistocles must have been looking for anything he could find to finance the sort of defense he considered necessary.

And what he found turned out to be just barely enough, as the Great King Xerxes (Darius had died in the meantime) mounted a gigantic operation to invade. He built a bridge of ships across the Hellespont, lashing them together, and putting boards and earth on them so that horses and other beasts of burden could cross, and also cut a canal through one of the peninsulas just west of the Hellespont so that ships could travel into the Aegean Sea safely, without being subject to sudden storms (which had wrecked much of the navy on a previous invasion attempt). So the army marched through Thrace and Thessaly, and down through northern Greece, paralleled by its navy, which kept the army supplied. Such a huge force couldn’t supply itself adequately on the produce of the land they crossed through, so the navy was their lifeline.

Themistocles saw the best defense as being as far north as possible, and managed, with a great deal of diplomacy, to get the various Greek cities to put aside their quarrels for the duration of the emergency, which was a great feat, considering the tendency of the Greeks to quarrel. It was decided to meet the Persians in two places: by the armies at Thermopylae, the Hot Gates, where there were hot springs, and a very narrow passage between northern and central Greece; and by the navies at Artemisium, an area along the water between Euboea, a long narrow island, with a narrow strait between it and the mainland. Leonidas of Sparta was in command of the armies at Thermopylae, and expected to get reinforcements, though there was both a religious festival and the Olympics being celebrated at the time. His armies were no more than an advance guard. So he repaired a defensive wall, gathered supplies from the countryside, talked to the various towns in the area and acquired some more troops, then settled down to wait.

The navy had the good fortune that a storm hit the Persian fleet headed south, and damaged a large amount of them. It took them some time to get the fleet battle-ready again, and meanwhile the navy got some news about their number and disposition. They were somewhat staggered at the huge number, and weren’t exactly sure what to do, but Themistocles persuaded them to bring the Persians to battle, and find out how good they were. They did so, and most of the Greeks were better sailors than most of the Persian navy, with the exception of the Egyptians and Phoenicians, who were very good sailors. The battle was inconclusive, though the Greeks seem to have done slightly better than the Persians, but not long after that came the news that the Persians had sent a fleet to the southern end Euboea, where they could seal up the strait and trap the Greeks. Luck was with the Greeks, however, and a storm wrecked much of that fleet, and a fleet sent from Athens was able to mop them up. The Persian navy hadn’t been destroyed, but its numbers had been substantially reduced. This is probably why the Persians refused a strategy that might have worked well for them: to send a large part of their fleet to the southern Peloponnese, where they could probably land unopposed and bring the war directly to Sparta, which would then be unable to help the other Greeks.

Meanwhile, the battle of Thermopylae had begun, and the Persians were unable to make any headway against the Spartans and the few other troops there. There were only 300 Spartan warriors, but there were volunteers from Thebes and Thespiae who fought with them. They had a perfect spot to defend, a very narrow valley with a defensive wall across it. The only thing they had to fear was being outflanked.

This, of course, is the part of the war that most people have heard of. Someone volunteered to guide Persian troops along a mountain path that came out behind the Spartan position. Troops from Phocis were guarding the area, but were caught napping and driven away. Had Leonidas reinforced them with other troops, things might have been different, but the Persians had outflanked the Spartans (who heard about it not much later), and the Spartans knew that their position was hopeless. Leonidas apparently asked for volunteers to stay and fight anyway, but sent anyone who didn’t volunteer away, deciding to make a last stand to inspire the Greeks to continue resisting. Had relieving troops arrived sooner, the Spartans might have been able to hold out indefinitely, but no one had expected Thermopylae to fall so quickly, so once what had happened was known, the troops weren’t sent. It still took the Persians a long time to defeat the Spartans, eventually having to kill everyone (or almost everyone) of the defensive force. Xerxes had won, but at a staggering cost. The Greeks had lost, but because they had done so well both on land and sea, they had a confidence that they could continue the struggle.

Once the defeat at Thermopylae was known, the Greek navy retreated to the gulf between Attica and Peloponnese. Most of the inhabitants of Attica had already been taken to the island of Salamis as a relatively safe spot until the war was over, and there were troops and ships guarding the area. The navy returned, the Persian army moved down through Attica, plundering and burning as they went, and the war leaders conferred.

Some wanted to make their stand at the isthmus that connected central Greece with the Peloponnese. Themistocles argued that it would be better to fight at Salamis, and if unsuccessful, to fall back on the isthmus. A lot of discussion and politicking followed, and Themistocles made his point by threatening to have the Athenian part of the navy (the greater part) ferry all Athenians to Italy to start a new colony. He also pointed out that if the navy sailed to the isthmus, they would have to fight the Persians in the open sea, which would put them at a disadvantage. The allies reluctantly agreed. Once the Persians were in position, Themistocles seems to have made sure the fight would be off Salamis by sending a message to Xerxes that he was going to lead his ships away. What he did in fact was to send a group of Corinthian ships away, the Persians thought the whole Greek navy was leaving, and left their anchorages to destroy them. But the strait between Salamis and the mainland was narrow, so that the Persians couldn’t deploy their whole navy effectively, and the Greeks were able to fight a few at a time, the Persians crowded each other and fouled their ships together, and it was the Persian navy that was destroyed.

The Persians then withdrew, but though the navy limped home, an army was left was left which occupied Athens, and drew things out, waiting to see if any of the different Greek groups would withdraw from their coalition. Had the leader of this army, Mardonius, had more time, this strategy might well have worked. Greek alliances didn’t tend to last long, and each city had its own parochial interests. But although he had a fairly large number of troops (about 30,000), he didn’t have supplies for all of them, and had to withdraw, burning and destroying Athens to the extent he could on his way north.

He settled in fairly near where Themopylae had been fought, and gathered more troops and supplies while he waited. The Greeks went through much political discussion, Athenians threatening to go over to the Persians, while the Spartans called their bluff, but eventually deciding they did need to fight the remaining Persian troops. The Spartans were reluctant to send their troops outside the Peloponnese, but finally decided that it was better to fight elsewhere and finally rid Greece of the Persians. So the allied troops followed the Persians and caught up with them at Plataea. Here both sides sat and waited for awhile.

Pausanias, the commander of the Spartans, and overall commander, had had an oracle say that he would win as long as he didn’t attack first. So he sat and waited. Mardonius did the same, even though the Greek troops moved up to an exposed position in an attempt to draw a Persian attack. It’s unclear just why both sides waited so long. Mardonius could probably have inflicted a lot of damage earlier on the Greeks, but didn’t. In the end, the reason for the attack coming when it did was probably because both sides were running out of food and water. The Greeks sent the Athenians and some of the Spartans to withdraw where they could be seen doing so, and the Persians attacked. They attacked without a great deal of discipline, but the Greeks still had a hard fight before they began to gain the advantage. Mardonius was killed, which led the Persians to begin withdrawing, the Thebans who had fought with the Persians withdrew to Thebes, while the remaining Persian troops found an abandoned fortress and took it over. It took Athenian sappers to break down the wall before the Greeks were able to finally defeat the Persians, and the war ended.

There are few historical analogies to this war. We might compare it to the American Revolutionary war, in which Great Britain had similarly long supply lines to the Persian ones, but were never able to commit such overwhelming numbers to the war. The American colonies didn’t always get along, but they didn’t have the ancient rivalries of the Greek cities. The different Greek governments had been in place for at least hundreds of years, in some cases in excess of a thousand, so there had been plenty of time for rivalries to develop. And Green insists that part of the Greek success must be attributed to their political experience, Greek politics being “vicious.” Not all Americans were in favor of our revolution: a good many remained loyal to the King, and after the war an estimated 10% of the population emigrated to either England or Canada. But there were still relatively few who committed what would be defined as treason. In Greece treason (however it is defined) was something that always had to be considered. It was nothing short of miraculous that the Greeks were able to cooperate as well, and for as long as they did.

Green points out that Herodotus, who provides one of the most important chronicles of the war, was strongly biased against Themistocles. The reason for this, he says, is because Herodotus got most of his information from conservatives who loathed Themistocles. They didn’t want to win the war by his tactics, though their own were, in hindsight, inadequate. They didn’t want to abandon their farms to the enemy, much less the city of Athens, and they also didn’t want to owe their deliverance to lower-class sailors and fighters. But without Themistocles’ strategy it’s doubtful the Greeks could ever have won. Xerxes would have been able to split his forces and invade many parts of Greece at once, and the Greeks wouldn’t have been able to summon the manpower to repulse them. They barely had enough to win a one-front war as they did.

But conservatives could and did make Themistocles look as bad as possible, and shortly after the victory of Salamis he is no longer found in the record of the war. A story tells of his walking as a boy with his father, and passing some remains of ships rotting. His father said that this was an example of the way Greeks treated political leaders: once they had used them they threw them away. Themistocles entered a political career, and after his greatest success, experienced the truth of what his father had told him.

The victory also gave the Greeks, and especially the Athenians great confidence. At the time they were some of the greatest fighters in the world, and frequently hired out as mercenary troops. But it would be about 150 years before Alexander the Great invaded Asia, destroyed the Persian Empire, and brought Greek influence to the east, and Oriental influence to the west. And if one believes in freedom, the Greeks struck a blow for it against great odds by defeating Persia. The Greeks, and especially the Athenians, would do some not so wonderful things with their freedom, but Athens in particular would reach unprecedented cultural heights too. If Athens and Sparta could have avoided the Peloponnesian war, who knows what other wonderful things the Greeks might have accomplished? But they didn’t, and Alexander of Macedon inherited the best of the Greek tradition. Like any other culture, they had their time, and eventually declined into a lower quality. But the war against Persia was, with all its political messiness, one of the finest hours of ancient Greece.

Deus X


Norman Spinrad published Deus X twenty years ago, a little motality tale about what just might be our future. In the novel climate change has already happened, but he leaps over the immediate consequences of that and talks about the world afterward, a greatly diminished world in which there’s still a civilization, but a great deal fewer people than ther are now, and much of the world is devastated. Rome still survives, but little of the Mediterranean population survies. It’s very hot there, with a lot of ultraviolet in the sun, which isn’t good for our kind of protoplasm.

The Catholic Church is a big part of this story, and so is the very human custom of digitally modeling a person’s consciousness so it can be loaded into a computer network. Such a network features various channels that one can buy acccess to. Interactive channels of adventure, sex, romance, or whatever you like. But once the modeled consciousness is there (“there” might be difficult to define) there’s no smell, taste, nor kinesthetic sense. They may or may not have human feelings, but they don’t have human senses.

The Catholic Church enters the novel because it has decided that these consciousnesses that survive digitaqlly have no souls. This has proved to be an unpopular stance, and the Church has lost a great many members. Now the Pople has decided to resolve the question. She (yes, a female Pope, just like the Tarot card) proposes to do this by modeling the consciousness of a Cardinal who has opposed the idea that digitized personalities have sould. Loading his modeled consciousness into the medium of cyberspace will allow it (or him) to report back to the Pople and various theologians who can help determine if his consciousness does have a soul or not.

The Cardinal in question isn’t thrilled with this idea (he’s dying at the time, of old age and related ailments), but eventually gives his consent. He’s loaded into a supposedly secure Vatican network, but after some conversation with the Pople and various theologians, disappears. The Vatican enlists a sort of private detective of cyber space, and we get to the meat of the book.

The first problem is, how do you define a soul? That’s a problem for most people in the real world too. Most religions declare we have them, but they have never been scientifically verified. One spiritual teacher, mentioned in previous posts, declared that none of us are given souls, but only the potential to create them. If we fail to reach that potential, we survive for a little while after death, but eventually fade away (that might not be the best description, but this is a subject in which few have real expertise). He further said that souls, like everything else in the universe, are material, but of a material so fine that science (Western, at least) has so far overlooked it. The soul of a human who has developed to his or her full potential can survive indefinitely within the confines of the solar system.

This isn’t the definition the novel uses. The detective suggests that if any of these digitized personalities can do anything recognizable as individual initiative, not provided for by the routines and subroutines of the computer modeling process, that entity has a soul. To prove it, he suggests to the computer model of the Cardinal to take a leap of faith and clasp his (its) immaterial hand with the immaterial hand of the detective. The Cardinal does.

Having done this, the former Cardinal discovers that he (it) doesn’t want to die. The detective’s job is to deliver his consciousness back to the Vatican, but before allowing the process to begin, the Cardinal (before death) had stipulated that after 90 days the digitized consciousness would be erased. That consciousness no longer wants to be erased.

The detective suggests sending back a copy of the consciousness, a Cardinal 1.1. He does, and the copy is discovered to be a fake, but in the meantime, things have begun happening. The inhabitants of cyberspace, having a consciousness without human senses are bored and unhappy, without any way to resolve their problem. The Cardinal has shown them that faith in another can have an effect. They now believe they do have souls, since they are capable of desires and actions, and begin to act on the world by curbing any human activity they consider detrimental to the planet. The detective comments, late, but better late than never.

The Catholic Church isn’t happy about this turn of events, but the detective suggests there’s nothing they can do to change it, so they might as well get ahead of the curve and make the best of it. After all, the central belief of Christianity is that God was able to download himself into a human man for the benefit of the world. Not so far away from the idea of humans being able to load a consciousness model into cyberspace, whatever the reason. And the Catholic Church’s mission is to minister to any soul on earth, corporeal or incorporeal.

Faith has frequently been jeered at, with some justification. If one has faith only in what one is told to have faith in, how real can it be? Then there’s the question of when is faith real, and not just the answer to a catechism? One author mentioned having talked to people who walk through fires, and asked them how they do it. They replied, “You have to trust you won’t get burned.” I’ve never reached that level of trust.

But there is a common human institution that calls for faith, and that’s marriage. When you make marriage vows, in my limited experience, you’re not promising to do something you already know you can do. You’re promising to do whatever is required with relation to the other person. You may not be able to totally fulfill that promise in every respect, and probably few people are able to, but you may well be surprised to find that you can do more than you thought you could. It seems to me that’s one of the aspects of faith, and another is, as the detective says, reaching out to another person. Life is contact. One author (perhaps Sartre or Beckett?) said, “Hell is other people.” That doesn’t seem right. Other people can certainly behave in hellish, demonic ways, but to be absolutely alone would be hell for most people. That’s why prisoners are held in solitary confinement.

So maybe Deus X is a simplistic fable, but maybe it’s not a simplistic as all that.

This New American Century


Imagine a young couple, both less than 30 years old, with two children, who can’t find jobs. There must be a lot of such people around now, with the economy the way it is, especially if they don’t have any particular education or specialized skills. They’ve made some stupid mistakes, so they have legal troubles not yet resolved. Not everyone has those problems, but all of us have probably done stupid things when we were young. It would be one thing if they weren’t trying, another if they’re trying, but so far without success.

Some might say, let them die. America’s largely been about competition throughout our history, but relatively fair competition. And I don’t think anyone can say that Americans in general are hard-hearted, though some are. Are we becoming hard-hearted as a nation? Mitt Romney didn’t think so when he said that Americans couldn’t possibly die from lack of health insurance. The pain he’s likely to cause by revamping Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security isn’t real to him, since he’s not in the position of needing those things, and apparently has no idea about people who are. Maybe he means well, though I wouldn’t count on that, but being clueless doesn’t suggest his being good presidential material.

Cal Thomas, in a column a year or more ago, talked about how there were good things in the Great Depression: that people helped each other more. Certainly that part of it was a good thing. How many of us would trade a financially comfortable life for that?

Maybe it would be good for us if we did, though. Maybe each of us would find a sudden new perspective on our own value and that of others. I think that many of us hunger for that, but are afraid of the price. The problems we face as a nation won’t be easy to solve, any more than our personal problems. We all want security, but we also want to live, and too much security can eventually strangle life. Maybe that’s one of the root causes of the hatred we see here. People are insecure, and prefer to blame others for it.  Scapegoating is pretty universal. It’s a symptom of fear, and fear is very useful as a tool for manipulation.

So, returning to the couple I mentioned before, let’s suppose further that their health isn’t very good, and that they have no health insurance. Whoever might be helping them is going to help them with those problems too, and healthcare isn’t cheap. Since neither of them have jobs, they can’t repay whoever helps them. What happens next? Does whoever helps them stop? Do they finally find work and begin supporting themselves?

I’m speaking here of only one couple, but the above problem is a lot larger than that. A lot of young people are unable to find work. Sometimes it’s their own fault, sometimes it isn’t. What is to be done? Do we as a country, as a community, as a state, invest in these young people and help them to eventually succeed, or do we cast them adrift?

I read a book on 17th century pirates, whose main place of activity was the Caribbean. According to this, English families, during the Cromwellian Civil War, used to send their boys away from home as early as the age of 7, since they couldn’t afford to support them. Many of these boys ended as pirates in the Caribbean. Where else could they have gone? They had no education, and no one to sponsor them in getting one or finding a decent job. So they drifted into being outlaws because it was their only way to survive, and into homosexuality, since women were rarely available.

As a country we’re entering into a period comparable to that one. We have no actual civil war as yet, but I wouldn’t exclude the possibility. And I also wouldn’t exclude the possibility of poverty touching a lot more lives than it does now.

The age of cheap energy is about over with. We have some oil, natural gas and coal left, but the supply is finite, and we don’t know how much longer it will last. People have begun using renewable energy like solar and wind, and there are probably other sources out there to be exploited if we can figure out how and invest in them. But suppose we don’t. And suppose that even if we do, we can’t use energy as we’ve become used to doing. Then our economy stops expanding.

The age of cheap energy roughly corresponds with the history of the USA. The American Dream was built at least partially on cheap energy. Can there be an American Dream without it?

We’re in an age that is in some ways unprecedented. There have been ecological catastrophes before, but they’ve been mostly pretty localized. That’s unlikely to be true this time. Most areas of the world have been subjected to ecological degradation. We can change this if we want to, but we get things from this behavior that we like.

We like possessions. We like wealth. We don’t like to think of the true cost of things, that means that when the cost comes due we won’t want to pay it, and the price will grow correspondingly higher.

We’ve had many people tell us, beginning thousands of years ago, and continuing through the last century and into this one, that we need to change our ways. But we don’t like change. We’re willing, as a group, to do almost anything to avoid it.

Not that there aren’t those who do like change, and will rise to meet it, given any resources at all, but they, I think, are a minority. Perhaps I’m wrong about that. Humans can be quite adaptable when it comes down to it, but being willing to do the things to adapt doesn’t come easy to many of us.

It’s easier to ignore the problems, hoping they’ll go away, and maybe some of them will. But there are too many, and too excruciatingly difficult for many of them to just disappear. This coming century will be a time of adjustment, and maybe for long after that. We may have reason to consider the command-ments of Jesus again, that we are told to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and be humble (which I imagine is the interpretation of  ” poor in spirit”). To say nothing of his exhortation to treat anyone in need as if it was him.  How many of us do these things now? Perhaps we ought to start practicing.